Some critics claim it was at Turnberry's Alisa course, home to the 2009 Open, which saw the best tournament ever in the hallowed history of golf's oldest professional outing. Dubbed "The Duel in the Sun," the test pitted Americans Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus at one of the sport's toughest venues.
The phrase, "It doesn't get any better than this," could easily be describing final round play where the duo were tied with only three holes left to play. Their nearest competitor was fellow American Hubert Green who trailed a distant 10 strokes behind. Watson and Nicklaus became the drama of the day and, afterwards, both said they did realize the magnitude of that day and the worldwide stage they occupied.
Watson was the younger, giving away 10 years to Nicklaus who, at 37, had amassed a legend already winning 14 majors. But, Watson was coming off a Masters win that would be overshadowed by his "British" Open play and, as the fates would have it, were not only paired on the last day, but went toe-to-toe on the third day, too.
It appeared that with every shot, one was saying to the other, "Go ahead – top that." They each ended Saturday play with 65s, three shots ahead of fellow American Ben Crenshaw. It was a blazing hot day on the Scottish course where sunburned locals strained necks for a glimpse of history being made. Hopefully players and spectators alike would get a good night's rest for the battle call on the morrow.
The Golden Bear drew first blood Sunday when he birdied the second hole while Watson flubbed, carding one over. Nicklaus increased his lead by three birdying the fourth. Watson countered with birds of his own on five and eight. The duel was definitely on. The excitement was overwhelming as fans broke through security roping on the ninth fairway threatening to trample the golfers. It took course officials 15 minutes to subdue the crowd and clear the fairway.
The wait weighed greater upon Watson, who bogeyed the ninth, taking the turn at 34 – a stroke behind Nicklaus. At the 12th, Nicklaus increased his lead by two, sinking a 22-footer. Watson answered with a 12-foot birdie putt at the next hole. He worked more magic with an improbable tying stroke on the 15th where he sunk a 60-foot putt from off the green with a spectator crowd full of dropped jaws staring in disbelief.
Watson sealed his victory at the 17th with a birdie while Nicklaus looked as if he'd match the younger player when he stood over a three-foot birdie attempt.
Watson carded a 65 to Nicklaus' 66 making the 1977 truly the most remarkable match in Open history.
Although other Opens can't match the intensity displayed by the "Duel in the Sun," other tournaments from its hallowed past display some remarkable highlights making each special.
As far back as the late 1870s, playing under much different conditions, with different equipment, the Scottish courses at 12 holes were quite formidable. In 1878, Jamie Anderson finished the last four holes at Prestwick with 3, 4, 1 and 5, carding a hole-in-one at the 11th that propelled him ahead of runner up Bob Kirk by two strokes.
One of the first great duels in modern golf history was staged at the 1914 Open, the last before the tournament was suspended during World War I. The years leading up to the Great War saw golf dominance from a trio of players – James Braid, James Henry Taylor and Harry Vardon who carded 16 victories together. The 1914 outing is of particular interest because Vardon and Taylor were each competing for their sixth title and, as chance would have it, were paired together in the closing round. Pairings were selected randomly as opposed to the two lowest scorers walking the last round together as it is today. The random pairing of Vardon and Taylor set up this duel-type match exciting more than 10,000 spectators. Vardon triumphed in the end by three strokes.
The 1995 Open had some remarkable traits in that it welcomed first-time player Tiger Woods and bade farewell to the legendary Arnold Palmer. Although Woods made the cut, he failed to mount his famous signature Sunday rush, falling far back in the field. Palmer didn't make the cut but played his "swan song" at St. Andrews.
American John Daly shared the first-round lead with Mark McNulty with carded 67s. Daly maintained a share of the lead after two days tied with Brad Faxon and Katsuyoshi Tomori, but had a disastrous third round at 73, four behind the then leader Michael Campbell who was two strokes ahead of Constantino Rocca. Campbell struggled in the final round carding a 76 while Daly battled back, tying Rocca, and forcing a four-hole playoff where Rocca sunk all his chances when hitting the Road Hole bunker on 17 that took three swings to exit. Daly, a complete underdog, emerged as an unlikely champion.
With the emergence of Tiger Woods as a crowd favorite, each Open in which he played drew bigger crowds than the year before and in 1998 he was, indeed, in contention. Sitting in the clubhouse at 1 over, Woods watched as veteran Mark O'Meara, coming off a recent Masters win, surged past him by one stroke, along with American journeyman Brian Watts. Woods, in what has become his modus operandi, thrilled the crowd birdying three of the last four holes in his Open bid.
It wasn't enough.
O'Meara became the first golfer since Nick Faldo (1990) to win the Masters and British Open in the same year. Also, at the ripe old age of 41, he was the oldest golfer to win two majors in the same year. And, his even par of 280 was the first since Greg Norman in 1986 to capture an open title.